Many a musician has staked a claim that Martin guitars are out of this world. That boast turned to reality in March 1994 when astronaut Pierre Thuot ferried his customized Martin Backpacker guitar aboard a Columbia space shuttle flight.
Thuot is one of a legion of celebrated players of the Stradivarius of acoustic guitars, which have been crafted in the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania since 1838. From Chet Atkins to Neil Young, the 166-year-old company based in Nazareth counts more than 200 stellar performers as loyal patrons. Mark Twain strummed one, as did Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. For their showcase concerts on MTV's "Unplugged" series, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Kurt Cobain each played a Martin.
Bluegrass musician Bob Paisley says his father's Martin guitar jangled out tunes in the mountains of North Carolina at the turn of the century. Paisley caught the fever nearly 50 years ago. He owns a pair of 1949 Martin V-18s.
"Acoustically, it's the greatest guitar," says Paisley, 67, of Landenberg, Pa. "There's a kind of punch, a rhythm that doesn't last too long. You don't get a lot of carry-over in the sound when you switch from one chord to another. Ninety-five percent of bluegrass musicians are using them and the rest are after one."
The numerous guitars that bear the C. F. Martin & Co. logo from the 1800s and survive today in good playing condition testify to the wooden boxes' hand-craftsmanship and design. Martin guitars are revered for their distinct power and balance, for deep resonant basses and crisp, clear treble. Martin is, quite simply, the most famous and respected maker of flat-top guitars in the world.
Factory in a village
Visitors to the village of Nazareth, population 6,000, can see the company's original homestead at North and Sycamore streets. Built in 1858, it today houses the Guitarmaker's Connection -- a luthier shop that specializes in tonewoods, kits, parts, glues, tuning machines and instruction/repair books and accessories. It is still owned by the Martin company, and visitors are welcome during business hours.
About a half a mile down the road on Beil Avenue, you'll find the Martin Guitar Co. factory. Inside the newly expanded, 160,000-square-foot plant, which can be toured, the shop floor is humming full throttle. Depending on the complexity of the model, it takes 300 to 400 steps and three to nine months to transform rough timber into a Martin guitar.
Nearly two-thirds of Martin's 600 employees fashion the instruments with a fascinating blend of Old-World craftsmanship and modern technology. Craftsmen still use drawknives to hand-sculpt the final shape of the guitar's necks, but most of the pinpoint, multiple cuttings of blocks of mahogany or rosewood are done on one of five computerized machines. Wood braces once hand-glued to the guitar top are now grounded via a precise mechanical vacuum clamp.
Spectacular abalone-pearl hex-agon inlays are meticulously applied to the ebony fingerboards and the multiple soundhole rings. The complete guitar is sanded and sprayed during a two-week, 20-step lacquering process.
Adjacent to the factory's main lobby is the Martin museum, containing a collection of vintage and unusual guitars. Showcased in glass-enclosed cylinders are a 1900 Bowl Mandolin, an 1895 Style G and a pre-1867 I-28 guitar. In another case resides a one-of- a-kind 1938 R-21 Brazilian rosewood experimental guitar that was purchased by the company when it was sent in for repairs. At the center of the room stands the 500,000th guitar, an HD-28P built in 1990, which bears the signatures of the entire Martin work force.
An immigrant's dream
The Martin story began in 1833, when German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin arrived by ship in New York. Born into a long line of masterful violin and guitar craftsmen, Martin set up shop on the lower east side in a modest storefront where he artfully designed six-string guitars and violins, and sold everything from coronets to sheet music. Never truly at ease in the city, Martin moved to eastern Pennsylvania in 1838, purchasing a 55-acre tract near Nazareth.
Today, C. F. Martin & Co. remains one of the longest surviving family-owned and operated manufacturers in the country. Martin's production has soared through the '90s, as its vintage guitars have become red-hot collectibles for baby boomers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for instruments they craved in their youth. Last year's record production was 41,000 guitars; this year's projections call for 50,000.
Martin's least expensive guitar (DXM, a laminate introductory model) costs $599, while its most popular models sell for $800 to $4,000. Custom instruments and vintage models can run $25,000 to $50,000.
However, unlike many instrument manufacturers, Martin doesn't court celebrity endorsements, nor does it sell guitars from its facility.